Even if one has little expertise in navigating the night sky, the belt of Orion, the Hunter, is unmistakable. In mid-northern latitudes throughout January and into February, the three stars that compose it – Mintaka, Anilam, and Alnitak – rise together east as night falls, a string of diamonds, the closest the stars come to a perfect line. Two brighter stars – Betelgeuse and Bellatrix – stand over them at an angle, as if demarcating the top of a letter 'K,' or the wing tips of a great stellar butterfly. These are Orion's shoulders, while another bright star, Rigel - the sixth brightest star in the night sky - forms his left foot. A clear night will let you discern the club he's wielding and the shield that proceeds him. The outline is so definitive that one would conclude that these stars must be part of some constellation.
Beautiful Bellatrix - temporarily besmirched because of the Harry Potter books - rides the left shoulder of the giant
In fact, the constellation of Orion has been integral to the cultural histories of many civilizations. As people began to trade stories about the stars in the skies, sometime between 4000 and 2000 B.C., Orion's stars rose with the sun when the Spring equinox began. For the Sumerians, cultivating their fields in Mesopotamia, this was when crops could be planted. One way this information was related from generation to generation was through the Sumerian stories about Gilgamesh. Among his many feats, Gilgamesh defeated the bull that Ishtar's father Anu had sent to terrorize Uruk. After planting a dagger in the animal's heart, he dismembered it. His companion Enkidu threw the pieces into heaven where they remain today, in the form of Taurus, the Bull. For the Sumerians, the three stars that we identify as Orion's belt formed a dagger aimed at Taurus – a sight they would have seen setting in the western sky in the weeks before Spring commenced.
In India, Betelgeuse, the red supergiant that forms Orion's right shoulder, marked the sixth lunar station, Andra, or Humid One, since the rising of this star coincided with the beginning of the rainy season. Egyptians recognized the importance of Orion's station by assigning the soul of Osiris, god of the afterlife and husband of Isis, to reside there. Isis's soul rests in Sirius – night's brightest star, which dogs Orion's heel to the southeast – whose solar rising heralded the start of the Nile's flooding, the culture's most fecund period.
An earlier blog posted on this website recounts one of the many myths about Orion. (See D'Aulaires' Greek Myths) Ovid, in his Metamorphoses, recounts Orion's rather unusual origin. Keep in mind that the Greeks and Romans had some zany stories about the conception and birth of the gods. Artemis, the goddess of wisdom, sprang fully grown from Zeus' skull; he'd swallowed her mother, who'd been turned into a fly. And the story of how Aphrodite was conceived . . . not a G-rated one. In Orion's case, the gods Jupiter, Mercury, and Neptune were offered hospitality by a poor shepherd, who, not knowing their identities, nevertheless, sacrificed the only animal he had, an ox. Impressed, the gods asked the shepherd what he wanted most in the world. When he answered a son, the three gods urinated on the skin of the ox and told the shepherd to bury it. A few months later, Urion – later, Orion – was born. Again, there's that the connection between the bull – Taurus – and Orion. As if to strengthen this connection, the Greeks called a collection of stars just above and slightly to the west of Orion, tucked into the constellation Taurus, the Hyades. These were often called the "Rain Nymphs," since their setting in the west at dawn coincided with rainy season in November, and their name derives from the Greek word "to rain." Take some water and a bull's hide and up springs Orion!
An illustration from Hevelius, Uranographia (1690)
Every year for millennia, civilizations watched for the rising and setting of Orion. If the previous year's growing season had been disastrous, by watching for the right signs, they believed there would be a better harvest ahead. Life's balance for us today might feel as if it hangs less from the returning cycles of heaven and earth, but whenever we look for them, they are there for us, supporting us - in the budding plants, the nourishing rains, the growing light, the reign of those majestic stars. Watch for Orion traveling the winter skies as you head home from work this next month. He will be especially easy to spot from February 1st through the 4th as a waxing gibbous moon sails just above, moving from Taurus into Gemini.